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A longtime health outreach program is reaching directly into vulnerable communities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus among vineyard and winery workers across the Willamette Valley.
The program, known as ¡Salud!, is operated by OHSU Health Hillsboro Medical Center, formerly Tuality Healthcare.
“Agriculture workers are essential workers,” said Leda Garside, R.N., M.B.A., the program’s longtime clinical nurse manager and cultural liaison with OHSU Health Hillsboro Medical Center. “They are providing us with an incredible service, and they are essential to our economy. It’s a skill, which is something that many people forget. Picking grapes from vines, picking strawberries or blueberries is a lot of work and it’s a skill. You have to be resilient, strong, and have an incredible work ethic.”
A series of outbreaks have affected the food processing sector across the region. Workplace issues including physical proximity of workers, long shifts, and concern about guarantees such as sick leave have been cited among the factors driving the outbreaks. At the same time, the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on many of the communities of color who also form the backbone of the labor pool including Latino populations.
¡Salud! serves about 2,500 workers and their families, primarily through longstanding contacts with vineyards and wineries that provide 100% funding support for the program through philanthropy.
Garside and other outreach workers emphasize the basics: physical distancing, masking, hand sanitizing stations in the fields along with advice for limiting the spread when they go home.
“The key is to be proactive,” she said.
So far, the program appears to be having an effect.
“We haven’t seen outbreaks on the level that they’ve seen in other parts of the country, and that’s largely because we have great community partners providing testing and medical care for workers on-site,” said Alex Coleman, senior program coordinator in the public health division of Washington County Department of Health and Human Services.
The program includes five full-time bilingual staff, including Garside and two other registered nurses, a health educator and an administrative coordinator. It operates in eight Oregon counties in the Willamette Valley.
Garside worked with OHSU Health providers and Washington County staff early in the pandemic to develop protocols and recommendations for preventing the spread of the virus among workers and their families. In early May, the program began conducting two or three mobile clinics weekly, which will continue through the field season into early fall.
Services include free screening, temperature checks, preventive health messaging in English and Spanish, health assessments, routine lab testing and referrals to an emergency room or federally qualified health care center when necessary.
The program began in 1992 to connect vineyard and winery workers to basic health care services.
“Our team has developed relationships with employers and workers going back 30 years,” said Maria McCandless, manager of the Tuality Healthcare Foundation, which generates funding for the program through the annual ¡Salud! Oregon Pinot Noir Auction and other private donations. “It was easy to pivot in response to COVID-19 because we already had the relationships and trust established.”
Garside said she has been gratified that growers and workers alike are taking the pandemic seriously.
“Everyone is getting the message,” she said.